Rita Gutierrez came to Eagle County from Mexico when she was six months old, graduated from Battle Mountain High School in Edwards, Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction and for more than a year now has worked in administration for a Vail health care provider.
When the COVID-19 crisis hit Eagle County in early March, forcing the shutdown of the ski areas and much of the local economy, one of Gutierrez’s coworkers tested positive for the disease and her whole office – deemed essential – was forced to work from home.
Now Gutierrez faces deportation to a country she’s never called home if the U.S. Supreme Court next month rules in favor of the Trump administration and strikes down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows Gutierrez to legally work in the United States.
“Ending the program in the midst of a pandemic, I feel like it could be categorized as catastrophic at this point because there’s almost 30,000 DACA recipients that work in health care,” Gutierrez said.
There are about 700,000 DACA recipients nationally – young people like Gutierrez who were brought to the U.S. without proper documents by their parents. Under an Obama administration program enacted by executive order in 2012, they have been able to register with the government, undergo periodic background checks and therefore work and study legally.
According to immigration advocacy groups, more than 200,000 DACA recipients, also known as Dreamers, are working in essential businesses during the ongoing pandemic, including grocery stores, delivery services, construction, schools and health care. There are nearly 15,000 DACA recipients in Colorado.
The Trump administration first moved to end DACA in 2017, giving Congress six months to act. When lawmakers failed to codify the program into law, the Supreme Court stepped in to basically leave the program in place pending a future ruling. That time has come, and SCOTUS is now expected to rule on previous arguments in an unprecedented phone session next month.
“Some [DACA recipients] are already getting sick in health care because of COVID-19, and now workers would have to be either laid off or be at home [if SCOTUS ends DACA],” Gutierrez said. “Everyone would just have to go home and not work because we don’t have the correct paperwork. It would be catastrophic for the patients, for the hospitals, for the economy as well.”
SCOTUS on Monday granted a motion to file a supplemental brief after oral arguments, which were made last fall, in one of the DACA termination cases up for consideration. The supplemental brief accepted for filing focused in part on DACA recipients who are health care workers.
Marissa Molina, a DACA recipient who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was nine and grew up in Glenwood Springs, is now state director for immigration for FWD.us, a tech industry immigration reform advocacy group.
“Right now, there are so many DACA recipients who are in one way or another in the front lines,” Molina said. “And whether that’s in hospital administration or supporting food banks … or in grocery stores or in construction, they’re all playing a critical role.
“It’s important to highlight that in this moment in time, when we desperately need those folks in those positions, we’re not asking for papers,” Molina added.
Overall, a 2019 Harvard Medical School study found that in the labor-starved U.S. health care sector, 18.2% of all workers are immigrants, and yet President Donald Trump on Tuesday moved to block both legal and illegal immigration before settling Wednesday on an executive order to suspend green cards for 60 days.
Molina is also concerned that overall members of the Latinx community in Colorado – not just DACA recipients – are less likely to be insured and more likely to be infected by COVID-19. And mountain towns have the highest percentage of uninsured residents in the state.
“When you put those two things together and look at the data it makes sense, because if people don’t have access to equitable means to get health care, then they can’t get the preventative care for their diabetes or hypertension,” Molina said. “And we know that those are the leading underlying conditions that are leading people to face really serious impacts [from COVID-19].”
Locally, Eagle County Public Health has been working with Vail Health’s MIRA Bus to visit every mobile home park in the Eagle Valley and other workforce housing areas, offering free COVID-19 screenings.
While ethnicity questions weren’t part of the early state screening forms, Colorado health officials are now asking counties to gather that information. Based on the first round of MIRA Bus testing, county officials say they’re not yet. seeing higher rates of infection in the Latinx community.
Rebecca Larson, disease prevention and control manager for Eagle County Public Health, said via a county spokeswoman there was a 32% positivity rate in that early round of testing.
“Based on our investigations, the onset of illness, rate of household exposure and community level exposure, this is consistent with the trends we are seeing across the entire community,” Larson said via an email.
Despite early concerns, Vail Health officials say they’ve been very focused all along on the COVID-19 response in the Latinx community, which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, comprises just under 30% of Eagle County’s overall population.
“From the get-go, I would say we have partnered with Mountain Family Health Centers with their testing because a lot of people that maybe fall into that demographic are also patients of Mountain Family,” said Vail Health spokeswoman Sally Welsh.
Chris Lindley of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health touted Vail Health’s ongoing close working relationship with Mountain Family’s Dr. Zackary Kent and EVBH’s hiring of two bilingual, bicultural community navigators to “be a bridge to working with the community, especially on behavioral health issues and navigating insurance.”
“It’s this beautiful partnership where you’ve got Eagle County Paramedic [Services], Mountain Family, the county, Eagle Valley Community Foundation and the food pantry, and then Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical all deploying to these communities together to best support them the best way we all can – collectively,” Lindley said.